Saturday, June 13, 2009

Faust, Revisited

Over the years I've made many friends involved in one 12-step program or another, and if there is a commonality to be found among them, it is that their lives changed drastically once they started practicing the principles involved in whichever program they undertook. These remain the same, whether the addiction is narcotics, alcohol, food, sex, gambling. An odd mixture of acceptance, spirituality and a willingness to accept assistance from others who share a common ill can have miraculous results.

Several of the friends I have who are members of Al Anon, NA and AA in the past three years have divorced their husbands/wives or abandonned their relationships with their mates. In some cases, the reasons for such drastic actions were obvious: the significant others were practicing drunks, abusers not above using physical and emotional violence. But many, a surprising number, really, left because relationships had ground to a halt and they were no longer capable of maintaining what had become a charade.

When we become members of a recovery program and truly work it, we unwittingly make a deal with the devil, though we're probably not aware of it at the time. We decide that our lives, boundaried as they are by our addictions, are no longer satisfactory. On the promise of better, more fulfilling times, we break with the past, change our habits, espouse new and better ways of dealing with issues that may have baffled us. Often, we do this with a sense of excitement, almost elation, as we realize that what seemed impossible--abandoning the very stuff of our addictions--is now within our grasp. And as we transform ourselves, as we adopt new thoughts and practice new actions, we find that often the people closest to us also change. Far from being pleased by our progress, they develop resentments; they are bewildered, stubborn, angry. They may not have liked who we were before, but at least they knew us. Now the person who shares kitchen and bed is a stranger with new friends, opinions, thoughts of his or her own. We are no longer easily bullied. We want to re-assume the responsibilities our addictions took away.

We do not, initially, want an end to the relationship--we want the other party to grow with us, join in the adventure, and we assume this will happen in time. After all, our changes have been for the better, and who wouldn't want to improve his or her lot? We suggest the other also join a program. We go to couples counseling, see shrinks together and individually, we make efforts and forget a basic fact: our SO, if he or she is not an addict of some stripe, may not in the least be eager to change.

Quandary... What to do?

When I got sober, my then-wife told me she was not interested in participating in any program that involved group discussions and explorations of ourselves and our relationship. She did not want to thrash out our problems in public; she was indifferent to the opinions or experiences of others. Our life was private and not open to the examination of others. In time, she and I parted ways. It was as friendly as such things can be, tripped up only when it came time to divide conjugal property. But we got past that too and remained, if not fast friends, at least good acquaintances.

I have known a few couples who have survived the 12-step traumas, but not many. I am not sure whether it is possible or not, but I do know it's impossible to unring a bell, and once a better way to live life has been found, most are loathe to return to the old standards of guilt, anger, fear and distrust . So what's the solution? Suggestions, anyone?

Here is installment 98 of Wasted Miracles.

The first passenger to report to the infirmary complained of acute stomach cramps and, while she was being given a tiny cup of Pepto Bismo, vomited on the attending nurse’s shoes. Two more passengers, a first-class couple, came in shortly thereafter. They were pale, their hands were clammy and they also suffered from cramps. The nurse logged these complaints, and when twelve more passengers appeared in a twenty-minute span, she called the ship’s physician, Dr. Subramanian Purushotham.

Dr. Purushotham was a regular at the Captain’s table. Tall, graying, a urologist by training who had studied in Delhi and the United States and come to despise his specialty, Dr. P., as he was known, inspired an effortless confidence. He had been serving on the Isadora seventeen months and, prior to that, had attended to passengers’ needs on two other Royal Scottish Line ships.

He had seen every conceivable manifestation of sea-sickness, agoraphobia, and motion disorders. He had set broken bones, treated fibrillating hearts, purged gastrointestinal parasites, and closed the eyes of more than a dozen cardiac arrest victims. He could and often did prescribe antidepressants, beta-blockers and, on rare occasions, opiates. He had never, in his long sea-borne career, witnessed anything like the tumult that soon took over his infirmary.

The first patient had come in shortly after one that morning. By five a.m., more than three hundred passengers were clamoring for Dr. P’s attention. The corridors reeked of regurgitate and other effluvia he hardly dared name. Three of the ship’s four nurses were as ill as the passengers they were trying to treat.

Dr. P. knew that, 24 hours earlier, the ship’s sous saucier, Jean Marie Berger, had complained of agonizing pains in his bloated stomach. Dr. P. had diagnosed an inflamed appendicitis in need or urgent removal and remanded the man to Freeport’s community hospital. Perhaps the diagnosis had been wrong.

Captain Roderick Stuart, made aware of the pandemonium, checked in by phone every 15 minutes. As the news grew worst, he consulted his charts. By seven that morning, 417 passengers at last count were seriously ill. One elderly woman had lapsed into a coma, three tourist-class fares were vomiting blood. Few crewmembers were affected, which was a blessing. All hands not crucial to the immediate running of the ship were on clean-up detail, swinging mops and buckets throughout the four decks.

Shortly before eight, Captain Stuart, having explored all available alternatives, changed the ship’s course. They were twenty hours out of Nassau, so turning back was not an option. Even had it been possible, Freeport probably did not have enough hospital beds to treat the epidemic.

Even at maximum steam, the Isadora would not reach New York

for twenty-five hours. He consulted his charts again.

His mistress had joined him. “What does Dr. P. say?”

“Food poisoning, almost certainly. Perhaps botulism. Two more passengers are in a coma. ” He massaged his eyes. “Nothing like this has ever happened.”

She stood behind him, rubbed his back. He was standing erect at the chart table and she thought she could feel a slight tremor beneath her fingers.

“A Coast Guard helicopter is on its way to ferry the coma cases out, and the cutter Seawitch is on its way with half a dozen doctors. There aren’t enough helicopters to take everybody. “

She kneaded his shoulders, the muscles unforgiving as stones.

Captain Stuart said, “Baltimore. It has to be Baltimore.”

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